Aperitivo, or the right way to do happy hour in Italy

As the Negroni and spritz continue to gain ground in America, can aperitivo — the Italian cocktail hour when those drinks are featured — be far behind? We can only hope.

Aperitivo is both the name for a category of drinks (a before-dinner beverage; aperitivo is the Italian word for aperitif, which we borrowed from the French) and the post-work ritual of enjoying those drinks. It’s the Italian happy hour. But as Marisa Huff explains in her new book celebrating the custom, “Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy” (Rizzoli, $35), it’s more. Aperitivo is the time when you sit in a cafe, alfresco preferably, and catch up with friends while sipping a drink and nibbling on appetizers. It’s a scene that embodies la dolce vita (the sweet life).

Huff, an America-born food writer who now lives in Padua, a northern Italian city, offers both travelogue and cookbook as she describes the lure of aperitivo, focusing mostly on the northern Italian cities where the custom is strongest — Turin, Milan and Venice — but also hitting Florence, Rome, the Ligurian coast and her adopted hometown. She writes about the drinks and food you might expect, then tells you how to make them.

The apperitivi range from a glass of wine or prosecco to vermouth (neat, on the rocks or with soda) to cocktails — which tend to be lighter than American mixed drinks, with exceptions like the Negroni.

The range of the food is gloriously broad, from cheese focaccia (Liguria) to myriad crostini (everywhere) to fried sardines (Venice). We’re especially geeked to see plenty of tramezzini, — an Italian sandwich, overshadowed in America by panini, built on crustless white bread and holding a simple filling, such as red pepper and anchovy or tuna and egg. (Huff includes an entire chart of tramezzini!)

And for those of us lucky enough to be headed to Italy, Huff lists her favorite aperitivo spots, city by city.

Vintage Negroni

Makes: 1 drink

From “Aperitivo” by Marisa Huff. Barolo chinato is a fortified, aromatized wine made with Barolo, the most famous wine of Italy’s Piedmont region, and flavored with quinine bark (china in Italian). Guglielmo Miriello of Dry, a bar and pizzeria in Milan, adds it to the classic Negroni formula for a drink whose slight bitter edge lingers on and on. Look for Barolo chinato in well-stocked liqueur stores.

3/4 oz. Campari

3/4 oz. sweet vermouth

3/4 oz. London dry gin

1/2 oz. Barolo chinato

1 dash mandarin or orange bitters

Orange slice

Fill a mixing glass with 3 or 4 ice cubes. Stir to chill the glass, then pour off the water. Add the Campari, vermouth, gin, Chinato and bitters to the mixing glass; stir to chill for 15 seconds. Fill a rocks glass with 3 ice cubes and strain the drink over the ice. Garnish with the orange slice.